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Corruption brings down a governor

As Illinois state senators decided his political fate, Blagojevich played the national media

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"What impeachment is saying is that in the minds of a substantial number of the general assembly who were elected by the people, you have sufficiently abused your power that you cannot govern in this state,” says Dawn Clark Netsch, a professor at Northwestern University’s law school and a former candidate for governor in 1994. “You don’t have to prove it in the same way you would if it were a specific court of law.”

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Blagojevich warned that his removal would set a “chilling precedent,” but political scientists say that, in fact, this is the sort of case constitutional framers may have had in mind when they gave the power of impeachment to the legislature.

"They had to put the ultimate power somewhere,” says Kent Redfield, a political science professor at the University of Illinois in Springfield. “What keeps the legislature from abusing that power is that it requires a two-thirds majority [to convict] and that everyone has to run for reelection.” President Clinton, he notes, was acquitted in his impeachment trial because he still had significant public and legislative support, whereas Blagojevich long ago lost both.

Blagojevich alienated many

Blagojevich’s ouster marked the end of a political career notable for a fairly rapid rise and then a long decline that began soon after he was first elected governor in 2002. It’s unlikely he would have been impeached without his arrest on Dec. 9, but he had alienated most of the legislature long before that, and some lawmakers had been talking about impeachment for many months.

"He never built coalitions, he never built support,” says Professor Redfield. “The criminal complaint allowed the people who hate him to pull the trigger.” His approval rating was 13 percent even before he was arrested.

The former governor was born -- as he reminded senators in his speech Thursday -- to immigrant working-class parents, but got powerful political backing early on through his father-in-law, an influential Chicago alderman.

His charm and speaking ability helped along the way, as did the fact that Illinois voters were ready for a fresh face and a change of party after the previous governor, George Ryan, was engulfed in ethics scandals. (He was later convicted and sent to prison on corruption charges.)

"It was a lot of luck and a fluke of circumstance,” says Christopher Mooney, a political scientist at the University of Illinois in Springfield. “But he never understood what government was all about. ... It was a story of self-aggrandizement as much as greed.”

In addition to removing Blagojevich from his office, the senators voted to bar him from ever holding political office in Illinois again. But if his political career is over, Blagojevich seems determined to continue to fight in the court of public opinion -- perhaps hoping to sway the minds of some jurors in his upcoming criminal trial.

This week he appeared on numerous national media outlets, including The View, Good Morning America, Larry King Live, and the Rachel Maddow Show.

"It sounded like a crazy thing to do, but by and large he survived it without giving away the store,” says Professor Mooney. “He’s got this internal logic to his arguments, and if you don’t know the background, it sounds like he’s being railroaded. ... Fortunately for the state of Illinois, the Senate and the House understand the context that this is in.”